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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Remarks by the President on Sustainable Development Goals

General Assembly Hall
United Nations 
New York, New York 

3:04 P.M. EDT

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Good afternoon.  Mr. Secretary General, fellow delegates, ladies and gentlemen.  It is a great honor to be here to address the topic of sustainable development.

In many of our nations, especially developed countries, there is among our general population a genuine compassion towards those in need.  There is a recognition of the grinding poverty that so many experience every day around the world.  And yet sometimes it's said that our efforts to combat poverty and disease do not and cannot work, that there are some places beyond hope, that certain people and regions are condemned to an endless cycle of suffering.  Here, today, we put those myths to rest.  Today, we set aside the skepticism, and we lift up the hope that is available to us through collective action.  

Because the world came together in an unprecedented effort, the global hunger rate has already been slashed.  Tens of millions of more boys and girls are today in school.  Prevention and treatment of measles and malaria and tuberculosis have saved nearly 60 million lives.  HIV/AIDS infections and deaths have plummeted.  And more than one billion people have lifted themselves up from extreme poverty -- one billion.  

The entire world can take enormous pride in these historic achievements.  And so let the skeptics and cynics know development works.  Investing in public health works.  We can break the cycle of poverty.  People and nations can rise into prosperity.  Despite the cruelties of our world and the ravages of disease, millions of lives can be saved if we are focused, and if we work together.  Cynicism is our enemy.  A belief, a capacity in the dignity of every individual, and a recognition that we, each of us, can play a small part to play in lifting up people all around the world -- that is the message that we are sending here today.  And because of the work of so many who are assembled here today, we can point to past success.  And yet, we are also here today because we understand that our work is nowhere near done.  We can take pride in what we've accomplished, but we cannot be complacent.  

When eleven boys and girls die every single minute from preventable causes, we know we have more work to do.  When hundreds of women die every single day just from having a baby, we know we have more work to do.  When tens of millions of children are still not in school, when hundreds of millions of people have no clean water, no toilets, we have so much more to do.  

Right now, some 800 million men, women and children are scraping by on less than $1.25 a day.  Imagine that.  Gripped by the ache of an empty stomach.  Billions of our fellow human beings are at risk of dying from diseases that we know how to prevent.  Many children are just one mosquito bite away from death.  And that is a moral outrage.  It is a profound injustice. It is literally a matter of life and death, and now the world must act.  We cannot leave people behind.

And so, today, we commit ourselves to new Sustainable Development Goals, including our goal of ending extreme poverty in our world.  We do so understanding how difficult the task may be.  We suffer no illusions of the challenges ahead.  But we understand this is something that we must commit ourselves to.  Because in doing so, we recognize that our most basic bond -- our common humanity -- compels us to act.  An impoverished child in a distant slum or a neighborhood not that far from here is just as equal, just as worthy, as any of our children, as any of us, as any head of government or leader in this great hall. 

We reaffirm that supporting development is not charity, but is instead one of the smartest investments we can make in our own future.  After all, it is a lack of development -- when people have no education, and no jobs, and no hope, a feeling that their basic human dignity is being violated -- that helps fuel so much of the tensions and conflict and instability in our world.  

And I profoundly believe that many of the conflicts, the refugee crises, the military interventions over the years might have been avoided if nations had truly invested in the lives of their people, and if the wealthiest nations on Earth were better partners in working with those that are trying to lift themselves up.  (Applause.)    

As one of the founders of the United Nations, Ralph Bunche once said, “Peace is no mere matter of men fighting or not fighting.  Peace, to have meaning…must be translated into bread or rice, shelter, health, and education.”  

I’m here to say that in this work, the United States will continue to be your partner.  Five years ago, I pledged here that America would remain the global leader in development, and the United States government, in fact, remains the single largest donor of development assistance, including in global health.  In times of crisis -- from Ebola to Syria -- we are the largest provider of humanitarian aid.  In times of disaster and crisis, the world can count on the friendship and generosity of the American people.  

The question before us, though, as an international community, is how do we meet these new goals that we’ve set today?  How can we do our work better?  How can we stretch our resources and our funding more effectively?  How can donor countries be smarter, and how can recipient countries do more with what they receive?  We have to learn from the past -- to see where we succeeded so that we can duplicate that success, and to understand where we’ve fallen short and correct those shortcomings.  

And we start by understanding that this next chapter of development cannot fall victim to the old divides between developed nations and developing ones.  Poverty, growing inequality exists in all of our nations, and all of our nations have work to do.  And that includes here in the United States.  

That’s why, after a terrible recession, my administration has worked to keep millions of families from falling into poverty.  That's why we’ve brought quality, affordable health care to more than 17 million Americans.  Here in this country, the wealthiest nation on Earth, we’re still working every day to perfect our union, and to be more equal and more just, and to treat the most vulnerable members of our society with value and concern.  

That’s why, today, I am committing the United States to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.  (Applause.)  And as long as I am President, and well after I'm done being President, I will keep fighting for the education and housing and health care and jobs that reduce inequality and create opportunity here in the United States and around the world.  (Applause.)  Because this is not just the job of politicians; this is work for all of us.     

This next chapter of development cannot just be about what governments spend, it has to harness the unprecedented resources of our interconnected world.  In just a few short years -- in the areas of health, and food security, and energy -- my administration has committed and helped mobilize more than $100 billion to promote development and save lives.  More than $100 billion.  And guided by the new consensus we reached in Addis, I'm calling on others to join us.  More governments, more institutions, more businesses, more philanthropies, more NGOs, more faith communities, more citizens -- we all need to step up with the will and the resources and the coordination to achieve our goals.  This must be the work of the world.

At the same time, this next chapter of development must focus not simply on the dollars we spend, but on the results that we achieve.  And this demands new technologies and approaches, accountability, data, behavioral science -- understanding that there’s lessons that we have learned, best practices on how people actually live so that we can dramatically improve outcomes.  It means breaking cycles of dependence by helping people become more self-sufficient -- not just giving people fish, but teaching them how to fish.  That's the purpose of development.  

Rather than just sending food during famine -- although we have to do that to avert starvation -- we also have to bring new techniques and new seeds and new technologies to more farmers so they can boost their yields and increase their incomes, feed more people and lift countless millions out of poverty.  Rather than just respond to outbreaks like Ebola -- although we have to do that, and we have -- let’s also strengthen public health systems and advance global health security to prevent epidemics in the first place.  

As more countries take ownership of their HIV/AIDS programs, the United States is setting two new bold goals.  Over the next two years, we’ll increase the number of people that our funding reaches -- so that nearly 13 million people with HIV/AIDS get lifesaving treatment -- and we’ll invest $300 million to help achieve a 40 percent reduction in new HIV infections among young women and girls in the hardest-hit areas of sub-Saharan Africa.  (Applause.)  And I believe we can do that -- the first AIDS-free generation.  (Applause.)       

This next chapter of development must also unleash economic growth -- not just for a few at the top, but inclusive, sustainable growth that lifts up the fortunes of the many.  We know the ingredients for creating jobs and opportunity -- they are not a secret.  So let’s embrace reforms that attract trade and investment to areas that are in need of investment and in need of trade.  Let’s trade and build more together, make it easier for developing countries to sell more of their goods around the world.  And let’s invest in our greatest resource -- our people -- their education, their skills.  Let’s invest in innovative entrepreneurs, the striving young people who embrace new technology and are starting businesses and can ignite new industries that change the world.  I have met young people on every continent, and they can lead the way if we give them the tools they need.

Our new development goals are ambitious.  But thanks to the good work of many of you, they are achievable -- if we work together; if we meet our responsibilities to each other.  I believe that.  The progress of recent years gives us hope.  We know what works.  We know how to do this.  But perhaps because this is now my seventh year of addressing the General Assembly, I tend to be more blunt.  Along with the gray hair, I'm becoming more likely to speak my mind.  (Laughter.)  So indulge me when I say that we will never achieve our goals if we do not squarely confront several insidious threats to the dignity and well-being of people around the world.  No matter how much hard work is done by development agencies, no matter how large the donations and commitments that are made by donor countries, if we don't take care of some other elements of development, we will not meet the goals that we've set.  

Number one, development is threatened by bad governance.  Today, we affirm what we know to be true from decades of experience -- development and economic growth that is truly sustainable and inclusive depends on governments and institutions that care about their people, that are accountable, that respect human rights and deliver justice for everybody and not just some. 

So, in the face of corruption that siphons billions away from schools and hospitals and infrastructure into foreign bank accounts, governments have to embrace transparency and open government and rule of law.  And combating illicit finance must be a global effort because it is part of our development effort. And citizens and civil society groups must be free to organize and speak their mind and work for progress, because that's how countries develop; that's how countries succeed.  

Development is also threatened by inequality.  And this is a political debate that we have in this country, so I just want to be clear, this is not something from which the United States is immune to.  Every country has to grapple with this issue.  The wealthiest and most powerful in our societies oftentimes like to keep things as they are, and they often have disproportionate political influences.  When poor children are more likely to get sick and die than children in wealthier neighborhoods just across town; when rural families are more likely to go without clean water; when ethnic and religious minorities, or people with disabilities, or people of different sexual orientations are discriminated against or can’t access education and opportunity  -- that holds all of us back.  And so, in all of our countries, we have to invest in the interventions that allow us to reach more people -- because no one should be left behind just because of where they live or what they look like.   

Development is threatened by old attitudes, especially those that deny rights and opportunity to women.  In too many places, girls are less likely to be in school than boys.  Globally, women are less likely to have a job than men and are more likely to live in poverty.  I've said this before and I will keep repeating it -- one of the best indicators of whether a country will succeed is how it treats its women.  (Applause.)  When women have an education, when women have a job, their children are more likely to get an education, their families are healthier and more prosperous.  Their communities and countries do better, as well. So every nation -- all of our nations -- must invest in the education and health and skills of our women and girls.

And I have to say I do not have patience for the excuse of, well, we have our own ways of doing things.  (Applause.)  We understand that there is a long tradition in every society of discriminating against women.  But that's not an excuse for taking a new path in order to make sure that everyone in a society has opportunity.  

Development is threatened if we do not recognize the incredible dynamism and opportunity of today’s Africa.  Hundreds of millions of Africans still struggle in the face of grinding poverty and deadly diseases, daily assaults on their lives and dignity.  But I visited Africa recently, and what I saw gave me hope and I know should give you hope, because that continent has made impressive gains in health and education.  It is one of the fastest-growing regions of the world, with a rising middle class. 

And during my travels, Africans -- especially young Africans -- tell me they don’t just want aid, they want trade.  They want businesses.  They want investment.  So I call on the world to join us as we mobilize billions of dollars in new trade and investment and development in Africa -- and that includes Power Africa, our initiative to bring electricity and greater opportunity to more than 60 million African homes and businesses. If we get Africa fulfilling its full potential, that will help the entire global economy.  Everyone here will be helped.  It's not a zero-sum game.  We are invested in their success.  (Applause.)  

Development is threatened by war.  This should be a simple proposition, but it bears repeating.  It is no coincidence that half of the people living in extreme poverty around the world live in places afflicted by chronic violence and conflict.  Today, some 60 million men, women and children have been forced from their homes, many by conflicts in the Middle East and in Africa.  These are humanitarian crises and refugees that we cannot ignore, and we have to deliver the urgent aid that is needed right now.  And those countries that can must do more to accommodate refugees, recognizing that those children are just like ours.  But our efforts must be matched by the hard work of diplomacy and reconciliation to end conflicts that so often tear societies apart.

And as I said earlier, war and conflict is more likely to arise where we have bad governance, and we have high inequality, and we have discrimination against minority groups and ethnic groups, and we have low educational levels.  So these things are all related.         

And finally, development is threatened by climate change.  And I want to thank the Secretary General for the extraordinary leadership and work that he’s done on this issue.  (Applause.)  

All of our countries will be affected by a changing climate. But the world’s poorest people will bear the heaviest burden -- from rising seas and more intense droughts, shortages of water and food.  We will be seeing climate change refugees.  As His Holiness Pope Francis has rightly implored the world, this is a moral calling.  

In just two months, the world has an opportunity to unite around a strong global agreement.  I saw President Hollande walk in a few moments ago -- we are going to be converging in Paris.  With his leadership, and the leadership of every world leader, we need to establish the tools and financing to help developing nations embrace clean energy, adapt to climate change, and ensure that there’s not a false choice between economic development and the best practices that can save our planet.  We can do the same at the same time.  And the communities and lives of billions of people depend on the work that we do.  (Applause.)     

Future generations of young people watching today and tomorrow will judge us by the choices we make in the months and years ahead.  And one of those young people is Eva Tolage.  Eva lives in a village in Tanzania.  She’s 15 years old, and she wrote me a letter.  Some of you know I get 10 letters a day, mostly from inside the United States, but sometimes international letters.  I get 40,000 a day, but I read 10.  (Laughter.)  

And so Eva told me about her parents -- farmers who struggle to provide for their seven children.  And this young 15-year-old girl -- a girl the age of my daughters -- she dreams of going to college, but with little food to eat, she explained how it's hard for her sometimes to concentrate in school.  She explained that her house doesn’t have electricity, so it's hard for her to study at night.  

It's not because her parents don't love her and don't have ambitions for her.  Her father works incredibly hard in the fields to pay for her education.  But they just need a little help.  “I won’t let him down,” Eva said.  “I’ll do whatever it takes,” she said in her letter.  And then, knowing that we would be gathered at this summit to help lift up families like hers, she asked me a question that could be asked of all of our nations -- “What will you commit to doing…?”  What will you do?    

And there are billions of boys and girls just like Eva.  They’re just like our children.  They have as much talent and as much hope for the future.  And they’re willing to work hard, and their parents love them just as much as we love ours.  And just by the accident of birth, it's so much more difficult for them to achieve their dreams as it is for our children.  But in the eyes of God, they are the same children.  They’re just as important.

And for Eva, and all those just trying to survive another day in conditions that many of us can barely imagine, it can sometimes seem as if the world is blind to their struggles and their dreams.  And so today, I say to Eva and hundreds of millions -- billions -- like her:  We see you.  We hear you.  I've read your letter.  And we commit ourselves -- as nations, as one world -- to the urgent work that must be done.  To standing with families like Eva’s as they work and strive for a better life.  To ending the injustice of extreme poverty.  To upholding the inherent dignity of every human being.  Whatever it takes.  We can’t let them down.  And with your help, we won't.  

Thank you very much.  (Applause.)  

3:31 P.M. EDT